Can America put itself back together, or are now the Humpty Dumpty of nations, shattered due to self-inflicted wounds? As it happens, the first half of the question is the title of an encouraging cover story by James Fallows in the March issue of “The Atlantic.”
Fallows is in his mid-sixties and has been an admirable long-form journalist for forty years, in addition to stints as presidential speechwriter and policy adviser. In the seventies he authored a book titled, “Who Runs Congress?” Big Business was the answer. He has also turned his inquisitive gaze on our national defense establishment, misadventures in Iraq, and on Japan when it appeared to be ascendant and the U.S. in decline.
In the 1980s he moved there and came back with a book entitled “More Like Us” with the pre-Trump subtitle Making America Great Again. In the first years of this century he repeated the process, spending several years in China to understand that emergent colossus. In each case he found the Asia powers less super than advertised and our demise greatly exaggerated.
Three years ago he set off on another fact-finding trek, this time closer to home. He set out to look for America. As was the case when Japan was thought to be on the brink of eclipsing us permanently, many alarmists in the political establishment and commentariat seem to have given America up for dead.
But America is not contained in the New York, Washington and Los Angeles business, political and media elites. Outside that axis of cavil, Fallows finds cause for hope in the “process of revival and reinvention” that is taking place in plain sight if anyone chooses to look. He lookrd in a couple dozen cities and towns from Bend, Oregon to Burlington, Vermont including Sioux Falls, Greenville, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Duluth, Columbus and Davis, California.
Fallows believes we are passing through a second Gilded Age of haves and have-nots. And just as the Progressive Era antidote for its excesses emerged from a grassroots backlash, so may the cure for what ails us today come from practical efforts to fix what’s broken, not in the centers of power but in a hundred localities.
The successful examples he gives are inspiriting, and his analysis of what many of these disparate towns struggling to be born again have in common is illuminating. First they ignore divisive national politics and get down to business. Local spirit is an essential ingredient, and that means community leaders — whether political, religious, charitable or commercial — are essential.
He also found it necessary to have a civic story or myth to knit together all members of the community in pursuit of a common vision or definition of progress. A thriving downtown to counter diffusion and sprawl also counts, giving diverse people a place to gather and collaborate.
Such towns also rely on public-private partnerships whether to clean up the environment, renew the urban landscape, fight poverty and addiction, improve education or train workers for local businesses. Where the needs are too big for business, government or charitable entities to handle alone, a community effort can often succeed.
As the above implies, towns that thrive welcome diversity rather than fearing it, and few succeed without the vital presence of a nearby research university, a responsive community college and innovative K-12 schools.
Fallows ends by discussing how Gilded Ages end, and he sees three elements. A national shock wakes people up to trouble in the land. We’ve had a series of these over the last decade and a half from the dot-com bust through 9/11, wars and terror, and the Great Recession.
Next, an energized democratic populous has to conclude that political power must rein in blind economic forces, “otherwise you are talking about a national corporation, not a country.” Finally, “fertile experimentation with new approaches” is required.
In short, the prescription is a little Ben Franklin capitalism, a little pioneer populism, a lot of Yankee ingenuity, and maybe even more communal barn-raising. Fallows finds all these traditions alive and well in towns and cities across the country, and therefore reason for optimism. His message appears to be that individuals should find where in their neighborhood the times are changing and pitch in. They should ignore the bad news and nay-sayers, demand that government either lend a hand or get out of the way, and carry on.